‘An authoritative and highly readable work of social history which brings vividly to life a fascinating part of East End life before it is lost forever.’ Melanie McGrath
‘This vivid and richly readable account of women’s lives in and around the Tate & Lyle East London works in the Forties and Fifties is written as popular social history, played for entertainment. If it doesn’t become a TV series to rival Call The Midwife, I’ll take my tea with ten sugars.’ Bel Mooney, Daily Mail
Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End Factories
‘On an autumn day in 1944, Ethel Alleyne walked the short distance from her house to Tate & Lyle’s refinery on the shining curve of the Thames. Looking up at the giant gates, Ethel felt like she had been preparing for this moment all her life. She smoothed down her frizzy hair, scraped a bit of dirt off the corner of her shoe and strode through.
She was quite unprepared for the sight that met her eyes …’
In the years leading up to and after the Second World War thousands of women left school at fourteen to work in the bustling factories of London’s East End. Despite long hours, hard and often hazardous work, factory life afforded exciting opportunities for independence, friendship and romance. Of all the factories that lined the docks, it was at Tate and Lyle’s where you could earn the most generous wages and enjoy the best social life, and it was here where The Sugar Girls worked.
Through the Blitz and on through the years of rationing The Sugar Girls kept Britain sweet. The work was back-breakingly hard, but Tate & Lyle was more than just a factory, it was a community, a calling, a place of love and support and an uproarious, tribal part of the East End. From young Ethel to love-worn Lillian, irrepressible Gladys to Miss Smith who tries to keep a workforce of flirtatious young men and women on the straight and narrow, this is an evocative, moving story of hunger, hardship and happiness.
Tales of adversity, resilience and youthful high spirits are woven together to provide a moving insight into a lost way of life, as well as a timeless testament to the experience of being young and female.
About the Author
Duncan Barrett studied English at Cambridge and now works as writer and editor, specialising in biography and memoir. He most recently edited The Reluctant Tommy (Macmillan, 2010) a First World War memoir. Nuala Calvi also studied English and has been a journalist for eight years with a strong interest in community history pieces. She took part in the Streatham Stories project to document the lives and memories of people in South London. They live in South London.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Heading east out of the City of London, just past Poplar and the Isle of Dogs, you'll find the artificial peninsula of Silvertown: a narrow strip of land two-and-a-half miles long, sandwiched between the Royal Docks and the broad sweep of the Thames.
By the mid-twentieth century, this area was home to a score of factories, from British Oil & Cake Mills at one end to Henley's Cable Works at the other. The factories were a major employer, both for people living in the rows of slum houses in Silvertown and those in the surrounding areas north of the docks: Canning Town, Custom House and Plaistow. While the thriving docks provided work for the men in the local community, the factories offered employment for women as well. When working-class girls left school there were a limited number of options available to them: dressmaking, service, clerical work perhaps and, for the vast majority, a job in a factory. With the near full employment that followed the Second World War, most young people could simply take themselves along to a factory of their choice, ask for work and be hired on the spot. If they found they didn't like it there, they could walk out at lunchtime and be taken on somewhere else before tea.
Among the most sought-after factories to work at were the two operated by Tate & Lyle, the Plaistow Wharf and Thames refineries, at either end of the Sugar Mile (so called because, in addition to the sugar and syrup they produced, Keiller's jam factory was also located there). Tate & Lyle offered the best wages, generous bonuses three times a year, and a social life that was unrivalled in the neighbourhood thanks to the Tate Institute, a subsidised bar and entertainment hall.
There were plenty of positions for young `sugar girls', thanks to the many female-dominated departments: the great sugar-packing operation known as the Hesser Floor, the Blue Room where the sheets of paper were printed for the sugar bags, and the can-making and syrup-filling floors where the tins of Lyle's Golden Syrup were put together and filled. The jobs could be heavy, exhausting and repetitive, but for the women who undertook them the rewards outweighed the hardships. Most stayed until they married or fell pregnant (the rules varied between departments as to when they were forced to leave). Nearly all of them looked back on their time at the factories as a kind of golden era in their lives - of independence, friendship and romance, before the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood took over.
Originally the two refineries had been run by rival companies. Henry Tate, a Liverpool grocer turned sugar magnate, put up his London factory in 1877, when much of Silvertown was still marshland. His great business adversary was Abram Lyle, who built his own sugar and syrup factory a mile upstream four years later. Lyle was a pious Scot whose ruddy cheeks belied his commitment to teetotalism: he once declared he would rather see a son of his carried home dead than drunk.
For many decades the two firms competed in sugar production, but with an important unspoken agreement: the Lyles would not encroach on Tate's trademark cubed sugar, while the Tates would not produce a single drop of the golden syrup the Lyles had invented. But a cold war developed between them, and when the Lyles heard rumours that the Tates were about to launch a syrup onto the market, they hastily knocked together a cube plant in response. Leaking word of its existence was enough to ensure that it never had to be used. The families were scrupulous in keeping up professional boundaries - although the senior Tates and Lyles took the same train from Fenchurch Street Station every morning, they made sure to sit in separate carriages, and never acknowledged each other. By the end of the First World War it was clear that the competition was actually hurting both companies, but neither had a clear upper hand: the Lyles had the edge in profitability, but the Tates' output was not to be rivalled. A merger was the obvious way forward. Negotiations began, and for three years Ernest Tate and Charles Lyle tore their hair out in frustration as proposal after proposal was rejected by their respective boards. A deal was finally agreed in 1921.
The Second World War brought great changes to both refineries, as their workforces became female-dominated for the first time. As men were called up, the management were forced to blur the strict distinctions between `men's' and `women's' jobs, with female workers tackling even the most physically demanding and high-status roles, including that of the panmen who boiled up the sugar liquor.
After the war the men reclaimed their old roles, but a shift had taken place and the crucial part that sugar girls played in the company's success could no longer be ignored. In 1948 a mixed-sex canteen was built at the Plaistow Wharf Refinery, and for the first time the women were able to eat alongside their male colleagues.
Tate & Lyle has long since stopped being a family firm, and in 2010 it was bought by an American sugar giant. However, the legacy of its original founders lives on. In 2006 the iconic Lyle's Golden Syrup tins were officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest brand in Britain. Meanwhile, the philanthropic work of the Tate family is remembered in the libraries and art galleries that bear its name.
But the contribution of those ordinary young women who played such a central role during Tate & Lyle's East End heyday is not widely recognised, and their lives have not generally been recorded.
This is the story of those women, the teenagers who left school and gave the best years of their lives to Tate & Lyle. This is the story of the sugar girls.